Savion the Great Hoofs Highbrow-’Da Funk Jams to Bach

One day, a renowned British playwright I knew was talking about theater with his godson, who wanted to be an actor. “Everything you need to know about the art of performance is in this film,” the playwright advised him.

Expecting to see a film of, say, Olivier as Hamlet, his godson was amazed at the choice. The playwright fast-forwarded to Jimmy Cagney singing and dancing the title song from the vintage 1942 backstage story Yankee Doodle Dandy.

The boy never forgot it. Cagney’s George M. Cohan speaks for a particular, boundless American possibility and invention. His electric performance springs from the confident, irreverent strut and swagger of the true showbiz individual. Once seen, you never forget it. The little feller possessed an irresistible, eccentric genius for theater, and you loved him for it.

Cagney, the mythical movie gangster, began his career, incidentally, as a song-and-dance man when he joined a vaudeville act in the 1920′s named Parker, Rand and Leach. Leach was a working-class Bristol boy from England, Archie Leach, who in magical transformation became, of course, Cary Grant.

Cagney’s infectious, mad dance in Yankee Doodle Dandy was the British playwright’s surprising lesson in what it takes to be a great theater artist. It’s a supreme example of both the act and the experience of it becoming one.

If we fast-forward to another century-and possibly another planet-I’d say that when it comes to God-given talent that can mesmerize an audience today, Savion Glover is some kind of miracle. He tells us, among much, about sheer aliveness onstage, the joy of performing, the gift of speed and dazzling improvisation, the exactness of rhythm, the ability to listen, the emotion of sound and music beyond all words.

There are times when performers are so scintillating at what they do, all you can do is shake your head in disbelief. They’re too good; they’re so good, it’s laughable. “Astonish me!” was Diaghilev’s mantra and artistic prayer. Mr. Glover astonishes us every time.

“Tap” as we used to know it was transformed when he hit the stage with such percussive force in Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk eight years ago. The popular art form itself-often patronized as a bastard version of real dance-had to be redefined. Mr. Glover, a virtuoso genius at 22, had taken tap dance into the 21st century. Put simply, he was doing things onstage that had never even been seen before. And now he’s gone exhilaratingly further.

At 31, he’s making history by combining tap with classical music-funk with Vivaldi, jazz with Bach-in Classical Savion at the Joyce Theater, and the outcome is an experimental triumph. Scholars in the field might dispute the history-making claims. The elegant tap dancer Paul Draper was the first to dance to Bach in the mid-1940′s when he invented a new form that he christened “ballet tap.”

But Mr. Glover’s roots in hip-hop and jazz make his exciting crossover into classical music more akin to the revolutionary contribution of Artie Shaw. Shaw, the master clarinetist and ladies’ man, was an intellectual of jazz and, wanting to perform something different from big-band “swing,” he composed a jazz piece for clarinet and string quartet. He performed it during a big-band concert at the Onyx Club in New York in the summer of 1935.

It was called “Interlude in B-Flat,” and it lasted 12 minutes. “By the time we were supposed to walk onstage, my knees were knocking together like a pair of castanets,” he recalled. The audience was cheering for an encore at the end. But he didn’t have an encore! “Interlude in B-Flat” was the only jazz-classical piece he’d ever composed. So he played it over again, and the place went wild.

Savion Glover’s experiment at the Joyce is closer to Shaw’s, except that the inexhaustible Mr. Glover would never run out of material. His show is two hours long, with just three one-minute breaks for the star to change his sweat-drenched shirt. He’s as different from the suave Paul Draper as he is from the sophisticated Fred Astaire. He used to gently mimic Astaire, looking self-mockingly absurd in white tie and tails. In Classical Savion, he briefly adopts the first position of a ballet dancer, as if he’s about to launch into Swan Lake.

Mr. Glover’s proud inheritance and mentors of dance are Lon Chaney, Chuck Green, Jimmy Slyde, Buster Brown and, above all, Gregory Hines (who died much, much too soon in 2003). There’s a framed, lit photograph of Hines on the piano during Classical Savion. Mr. Glover is paying more than tribute to his hero: He’s channeling him, and at one touching point he even seemed to join his spirit in an imaginary duet.

The generous Hines once described the young Mr. Glover as “possibly the best tap dancer that ever lived,” and I saw them dance together during repeated visits to George Wolfe’s brilliant Jelly’s Last Jam in 1991. Hines played Jelly, and his protégé Savion played Jelly’s younger self.

One of the pleasures of the show was their “tap challenge,” which was like the call-and-response of two jazz musicians trying to top each other during manic improvised solos. Hines explained that no matter what he did-whatever impossible riff or trick he pulled out of the bag-his protégé always topped him. But one matinee before the show, he saw that the hung-over Mr. Glover had obviously been partying all night, and he thought to himself: “Got him!” Hines always enjoyed telling the story that, come the challenge during the matinee that day, the kid turned up the heat so high he couldn’t even keep up with him. “He killed me!” Hines remembered, and laughed.

At the Joyce, Mr. Glover’s miked dais-or stage-is surrounded by a young 10-member chamber ensemble in white shirts conducted by Robert Sadin (also in shirtsleeves). In comparison, the four-member jazz combo that joins them later for a jam session entitled “The Stars and Stripes Forever (For Now)” look oddly formal in their dark suits, even dour. So the classical musicians-about half of whom are Asian-American-look unusually relaxed and jokey, while the solemn jazz men look like classical musicians.

Mr. Glover looks at first unusually formal too, as if he’s dressing up half-mockingly for the occasion in his hip tuxedo with his dreadlocks tied back. He soon got rid of the jacket and down to his floppy shirt and vest and beads. But I see from the Playbill that his name is now a registered trademark. Who else could he be? His entrance alone was remarkable: On the opening beat of the third movement of “Summer,” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, he literally jumped onto the stage, landing with a thud on both feet like a child jumping happily into a playpen.

Then he danced for us to Vivaldi, to Astor Piazzolla’s version of the Four Seasons, to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 with three other Bach pieces, to Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances and to Mendelssohn’s Octet. He makes tap the only earthbound art form that flies. He sometimes dances with his back to us, as the detached Miles Davis played with his back turned, too. Only the sound, the emotion and the phenomenal musicality count. But Davis was a neurotic, and Mr. Glover appears serene-looser than I’ve seen him before.

He’s incredibly loose, yet simultaneously tight. He has grace and tremendous power. But slightly stooped as if searching for a sweet spot on the floor, his upper body isn’t important …. His feet are the instrument. His arms flail and energize him. But everything flows from the speed and astonishing rhythm of his feet. In that sense, he’s the most exciting dancer in the world from the waist down.

His stage persona is something else. He’s a cool, magnetic presence. He dances in spontaneous counterpoint or in harmony, driving the classical scores rhythmically on and off the beat. He had his own improvised “tap challenge” with the delighted members of the orchestra, including the game, improvising harpsichordist. The conductor, Mr. Sadin, kept an eye on Mr. Glover as if he were enjoying the show along with the rest of us. But he was “seeing” the music from another angle, feeling its inner pulse through the dance, of course, like a medium receiving the message. At one tremendous point, Mr. Sadin conceded the dais and stood to one side sipping from a bottle of water as Mr. Glover took over, conducting the orchestra by transmitting the Bach beatmagically through tap.

Then came the “Stars and Stripes” free-for-all finale, during which I thought I detected tributes to John Coltrane and, of all nostalgic things, “Aquarius” from Hair. Classical Savion is a terrific, innovative show. Mr. Glover looks serene because he’s having a ball, and so are we.